How to Buy and Cook A Turkey: Tips and Recipes
One of the most daunting meals of the year can be Thanksgiving dinner. Those who don’t cook very often are frequently pressured to “step up to the plate” on Thanksgiving and wow their friends and family. And, even the most experienced cook can still struggle with menu planning and how to cook the big “bird”. After roasting and smoking turkeys for years, here are key tips I have learned when it comes to preparing a successful, delicious, stress-free Thanksgiving dinner:
Time-Tested Turkey Tips and Recipes
One of the most important elements to a successful Thanksgiving turkey is starting with a quality turkey. Choose a fresh bird, not frozen, whenever possible, and organic, free-range birds really do tend to come out more tender. If the only selections are frozen, choose a fresh frozen turkey that has not been injected with butter or any other flavorings. When purchasing a frozen turkey, allow at least two days for the turkey to thaw. There is nothing worse than going to prep your turkey and it’s still frozen. If you are planning a big dinner party, select two 10-12 pound turkeys instead of one really big one. Oversized turkeys can be a little tough, and sometimes, the oversized turkeys are so big they don’t fit into a standard size oven.
*Brine the turkey
The question is always asked, “do I brine or not brine my turkey?” Unless you are frying your turkey, which I caution you to be very careful if you are going to fry your turkey, always brine the turkey. Brining helps breakdown the protein a bit, adds moisture to the turkey, and adds a little flavor. The brining liquid can be many combinations of salt, sugar, spices, herbs, and liquids. I use fresh rosemary, cinnamon sticks, cloves, brown sugar, apple juice, orange juice, and water. I float fresh orange and lemon slices in the brining liquid, as well. My recipe is here, if you would like to try it. Make enough brining liquid to cover the entire turkey and reserve about 6 cups of the liquid (pre-brining) for basting during the roasting process. Brine the turkey overnight or for at least 4 hours.
Susan’s Turkey Brine Recipe
Three parts sea salt or kosher salt
Two parts brown sugar
1/2 gallon apple juice
1/2 gallon orange juice
1 gallon water
8-10 sprigs whole fresh rosemary
2 star anise
5 whole cloves
1 sliced fresh orange
1 sliced fresh lemon
1 cinnamon stick
Note: Allow 1 cup of salt for every gallon of liquid.
*Prep the bird
If you have ever roasted a whole chicken, you can easily roast a turkey. A turkey is just a bit bigger, that’s all. If you don’t have a quality roasting pan, now is the time to invest in one. If you must use the disposable roasting pans, use two of them together for sturdiness. Place the turkey on the roasting pan rack. If you don’t have a rack, or forget, don’t stress, the turkey will still come out okay.
Some of my favorite ingredient combinations and how to use them are:
4 tablespoons butter (real butter, not margarine), fresh orange slices, fresh lemon slices, fresh rosemary on the stem, fresh thyme on the stem, sea salt and black pepper. You can also add a few fresh cloves of garlic, if you wish. Soften the butter and using your hands, gently lift the skin of the breast meat and spread 1/2 of the butter underneath the skin. Spread the other half on top of the skin and place any residual butter inside the turkey cavity. Sprinkle a teaspoon or so of sea salt on the turkey. The, coat the turkey with fresh black pepper to your liking. Secure the legs. You don’t have to be a professional chef to be able to tie turkey legs together. Purchase some cooking twine and secure the legs and wings. My dad is an engineer and makes a nice, neat “tie” at the top for ease in handling the turkey after cooking. I secure the legs and wings only and use the handle of a long wooden spoon to remove the turkey from the roasting pan after cooking.
After you’ve tied the legs, stuff a few orange slices, lemon slices, and sprigs of rosemary and thyme inside the turkey cavity and then place a few of each in the roasting pan. Add about 2 cups of the basting liquid to the bottom of the roasting pan. Use the remaining liquid to baste the turkey during the roasting process.
Personally, I don’t stuff the bird with the stuffing or dressing. Make those separately to avoid cross contamination issues.
*Low, Slow, and Baste
Pre-heat the oven to 350*. Allow about 20 minutes of cooking time per pound of turkey. Place the turkey in the center of the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Using a clean dish towel, but one you can part with at the end of the day, and a pair of long tongs, dip the dish towel in the basting liquid and baste the turkey. Continue this process, basting every 30 minutes, until turkey is done. If the top of the turkey begins to brown too much, place aluminum foil loosely over the top and sides of the turkey; remove to baste, then return. Remove the turkey from the oven when the internal temperature has reached not more than 160*F. The turkey will continue to cook while resting.
*Resting and carving
Once your turkey is cooked, don’t stress about having to slice it right away. Remove the turkey from the oven and let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. This allows the juices to re-incorporate into the protein and also allows you time to gather everyone for dinner, do final prep for side dish dinner service, and perhaps enjoy a sip or two of vino.
Transfer the turkey to a carving board. I do this, as mentioned above, using the long handle of a wooden spoon and a serving fork. Using kitchen shears, clip the twine and remove the twine. Use a sharp, carving knife to carve the bird. Please avoid using an electric knife or a serrated knife. Remove the legs first. Then, carve the breast meat. Make a slice along the bottom of the breast meat, then starting at the top, carve downward into slices.
Tips to a Hosting A Successful Thanksgiving Dinner:
*Split up the duties
Offer to cook the turkey and perhaps, the stuffing or dressing, at your house but have guests bring one item such as an appetizer, salad, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and dessert. Five guests, five different items. Have them bring the items hot and ready to serve. If anything, the food will need to be mildly re-heated. *NOTE: make sure you both agree on the flavor of the dishes and the recipe being used.
*Pre-set the table and decorations
One to two weeks before, get your house organized. The last thing you need to be doing the week of your Thanksgiving dinner is cleaning up old newspapers, hiding all the kids toys, and cleaning up the hall closet. Do as much as reasonably possible one to two weeks ahead.
One week before, take inventory of glassware, dinnerware, and tableware. Decide what tablecloths you want to use and make sure they are clean and pressed. At least three days before, set the table, if possible, and definitely pull out any platters, special utensils needed and make sure they are clean and polished. Match each platter to a serving utensil and place a sticky note on each designating which food item will be served. Go ahead and set any table and house decorations. If you will be using fresh flowers, decide what vase you want to use and make sure it is clean and ready to use.
Plan for the beverages to be served in their own area and plan to have plenty of ice in a separate ice bin nearby. The last thing you need when cooking on the big day is to have fifteen people coming and going through your kitchen asking for ice, water, soda, beer, or anything. At least three days before, set out the glassware, barware, and cocktail napkins.
Prepare smaller decisions such as napkins, cloth or other, and prepare a seating chart, if necessary. The more details you have complete ahead of time, the less stress you will experience.
Make a shopping list for any decorative or serving items you may be missing and for food and beverages. Make a “to-do” list for each day. Divide to-do items amongst family members. Hosting at your home is a family event. Make it fun and have everyone participate.
Lastly, if you are planning to have 20 or more people at your Thanksgiving dinner, consider hiring a bartender or kitchen assistant. Many of them love to work on holidays as perhaps their family lives out of town, they would be dining alone anyway, or they just enjoy the extra money. When I used to do catering, all of the above were true and me and my team worked half the day and enjoyed time with friends the other half of the day. If two or more families are getting together, consider sharing the cost of an assistant. Having a professionally trained server to help can really lift the stress off of hosting and gives you time to enjoy the dinner and your guests.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
I am thankful for so many things – my family, my friends, my beautiful, kind puppy dogs. I am thankful for this beautiful country we live in and for our military that risk their lives to protect our freedoms. Please take a moment and share what you are thankful for during this Thanksgiving season.